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Possible Worlds of Fiction and History


Lubomir Doležel


Baltimore:The Johns Hopkins UnivIersity Press, 2010. ix+171 p.

ISBN 13: 978-0-8018-9463-3. ISBN 10: 0-8018-9463-8.


Reviewed byJean-Jacques Lecercle

Université Paris X-Ouest-Nanterre



The object of Doležel’s book is double: to refute the claims of postmodernist historiography, of the Hayden White type, with its blurring of the distinction between historical  and literary texts, both of which are taken as similar forms of narrative; and to assess and admire the productions of postmodern history and fiction. The link between the two endeavours is provided by the recourse to the theory of possible worlds, a field to which Doležel has contributed a classic account, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds: it is supposed to enable us to criticise the theory while allowing us to admire the practice. There are, however, problems with the first, if not with the second of those two objects.

The book starts with an introduction that seeks to define and criticise postmodernism (at least the theory of it): since it consists of a dozen pages, it is unavoidably problematic. An account of postmodernism, of its successes and failings, would take a whole book, and you do not really engage with the thought of Derrida in three pages, based on secondary sources.

The first chapter, “The Postmodern Challenge”, is more satisfactory, as it is a critique of postmodern metahistory. We sympathise with Doležel’s desire to distinguish historical fact from fiction and to apply “the Holocaust test”. Indeed, we do not want the revisionists to be able to deny the reality of the Shoah (note however, that the revisionists are not historical relativists: they do not claim the Shoah is only a narrative, they claim it is all a lie). So, having rejected historical relativism, we eagerly wait for the next chapter, where Doležel grounds his critique of metahistory in possible world semantics.

Great is our disappointment, for the recourse to the theory of possible worlds consists in a mere repetition, in more abstruse language, of the commonsensical proposition that fact is not fiction and fiction is not fact. Thus, historical possible worlds are not the same thing as fictional possible worlds, because they postulate the reality of their actions and characters, whereas fictional possible worlds don’t. Thus, the gaps in fictional worlds are ontic (we can never know whether Sherlock Holmes had a birthmark on his left buttock, as Conan Doyle doesn’t mention one, or the lack of one), whereas gaps in historical worlds are epistemic, relative to the knowledge of the historian (we do not know whether Joseph Stalin had a birthmark on his left buttock, but a letter from a lover found in the former KGB’s archives might lay our minds at rest about that fascinating fact). Thus, literary texts are poetic, whereas historical texts are noetic, and the difference is of course that poetic texts are figments of an unbridled imagination, whereas noetic texts are constrained by reality. The sad fact about this theoretical account is that it is too simple to really challenge metahistorical theories. Far more interesting would be a treatment of more complex cases (on which metahistory launches its attack on the traditional view). For instance, we might ponder the difference between historical facts (something did happen in and around the Bastille on July 14th, 1789) and historical events (“the start of the French revolution”, that celebrated historical event, is a discursive construct, not least because “the French Revolution” is an ontological metaphor, called into being by the discourses that narrate it). Or we might consider inexistent facts that induce historical events, such as the “massacre at Timisoara” that never occurred, but triggered off the fall of the Ceaucescu regime. Not to mention the life of Louis-François Pinagot, a 19th century French cobbler, as narrated by Alain Corbin, a “noetic” historical account based only on historical gaps, as the only facts known about him are a name and date of birth in a parish register.

In the remaining three chapters, Doležel shares with us his appreciation of the practice (as opposed to the theory) of postmodern history and fiction. He reads at length (sometimes to the point of summarising them) three books by Simon Schama, two novels of historiographic metafiction (by E.L. Doctorow and A.S. Byatt), and in the last chapter he gives an account of fictional and historical counterfactual worlds. With the possible exception of the last chapter, his readings, which often seem to forget the main line of argument, do not provide a more compelling criticism of postmodernist historical theory, even if the texts he reads are well chosen, and his readings of some interest. But the only conclusion we may draw from the book is that, as a theoretical challenge to metahistory, the semantics of possible worlds is perhaps not the best contender.




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